by Karen R. Effrem, MD
The annual Education Next poll on education issues came out last week, and there was a very surprising finding regarding charter schools. After nearly ten years of very stable support with a high of 72 percent in 2012, support has plummeted in the general public, as well as in both major political parties and among minority groups. It was the largest change in support of any item that was polled. Here is the poll description and their graphic:
39% of respondents say they support “the formation of charter schools,” which is down steeply from 51% in 2016, but still a bit higher than the 36% who express opposition this year. (Roughly one in four respondents takes no position on charter schools, perhaps reflecting the fact that many Americans remain unfamiliar with them.) Support has also fallen within the minority community—from 46% to 37% among blacks, and from 44% to 39% among Hispanics…Support falls by 13 percentage points among Republicans (from 60% to 47%) and by 11 percentage points among Democrats (from 45% to 34%), leaving the partisan gap on the issue largely unchanged.
The opposition among Democratic respondents is no surprise due to concerns about public funds going to privately-run schools that do not have to comply with the same accountability requirements and the fact that charters siphon public capital funds badly needed for the decaying infrastructure of district public schools. Here is the discussion from the poll’s authors:
Despite a record of supporting charter schools, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton questioned their effectiveness in her campaign by saying that they “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” The progressive wing of the Democratic Party… opposes charters even more vehemently, and the civil rights movement has also backed away from charters. The NAACP, for example, has called for a moratorium on charter school expansion until, among other things, charters “are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.”…The impact of these developments on public opinion seems to have gone well beyond the confines of the Democratic Party.
However, the sudden decline in support by self-described Republicans is much more unexpected. Concerns by parent and conservative groups were sadly ignored in Florida as Governor Rick Scott — a likely candidate for U.S. Senate — signed a law engineered behind closed doors by Speaker Richard Corcoran — a potential candidate for governor — that vastly expanded charter school flexibility and funding.
There are some very important reasons why the public seems to be turning away from charters. One of the most important — especially for Republicans — is that they still give the federally mandated tests that in 45 states are aligned to Common Core. This opens the door for the data collection and social emotional profiling that is occurring with these tests.
Researcher Martin West of the Harvard Graduate School of Education mentioned two more of the key reasons to Politico:
And charter schools have been facing more questions about their effectiveness and fiscal impact…
Strong charter school proponent, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, closed four charter schools in that state due to academic underperformance, bringing the total to twenty during his tenure. In Florida, according to data from the state Department of Education and Jeb Bush’s foundation, there is a higher percentage of charter schools receiving ‘F’ grades than traditional public schools, and an equal percentage receiving ‘D’ grades:
This is at least ironic because in Florida, the new education law requires charter schools to show a “record of effectiveness” before they can come and try to help failing schools turn around. According to this data, those charters don’t really exist. However, this data is also conveniently slated to disappear because the new law removed the requirement for performance studies between different charter schools and between charters and traditional public schools.
In addition, according to Politico, none of the large charter chains that are being lured to Florida with taxpayer funds even want to engage in this effort to fix failing schools because they “don’t want to go into communities that don’t want them and enter into contentious local political battles.”
And besides this, the National Education Policy Center did a major study on the effectiveness of charter schools using National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores and also found that charters were out-performed by district public schools. Here is one example of their data:
The increasingly frequent stories of corruption and financial malfeasance are also extremely concerning to taxpayers when government debt is so high. In Florida, the founder of two Jacksonville charter schools is under indictment for a major scheme involving “more than $1 million of public funds from a pattern of thefts from the state department of education, six school districts and 15 Newpoint-managed charter schools,” according to the district attorney. Charter schools may be controlled by boards that are from other states and other countries, making transparency and accountability to parents extremely difficult, if not impossible.
One final major concern is the foreign influence on American charter schools. The largest charter chain in the nation is the Harmony schools associated with extremely controversial Turkish imam Fatullah Gulen. This is the only charter chain ever raided by the FBI. (See the trailer for a documentary called Killing Ed and the interview of this award-winning documentarian by my Florida colleague Randy Osborne for more information.)
While there are certainly some effective charter schools — especially the Hillsdale classical charter schools that are able to teach around the Common Core curriculum and tests — they seem to be the exception, not the rule. Given the Common Core connection, lack of effectiveness, history of financial mismanagement, lack of accountability and transparency, potential for corporate cronyism, and foreign influence, the extent of the drop in support of charters should not be that shocking. Parents of all political views and ethnicities should be very cautious about this latest effort by the Establishment to control the education of their children.